(PLEASE NOTE: The following interview mentions plot developments in “Simon Killer” that may be considered spoilers.)
As ‘American in Paris’ movies go, “Simon Killer” is one of the less romantic you’re ever likely to see. Formally immaculate and profoundly unnerving, Antonio Campos’s second feature – following 2008’s equally striking and eerie “Afterschool” – sent shockwaves through the Sundance Film Festival last year: with the film finally on limited release and available on VOD, audiences can make their minds up about a film that’s still proving excitingly divisive.
A subtly brutal character study of a bright, good-looking American graduate who unravels psychologically (if indeed he ever was raveled, so to speak) on a gap year in Europe, it’s a film where the title may be either a spoiler or a red herring. Extreme violence lies between the lines in a story where scarcely a drop of blood is shed on screen, but it’s sex, used either as a weapon or a medium of communication, that “Simon Killer” scrutinizes most unstintingly.
With Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” remake, Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” already on his CV, 24-year-old actor Brady Corbet has form when it comes to playing margin-residing characters in equally off-center films. But “Simon Killer,” which Corbet also co-wrote, is the most expansive showcase yet for his talents: it’s his knack for outcast empathy, even while dismantling Simon’s clean-cut exterior to reveal the tortured sociopath within, that makes the film more than a cool technical exercise.
Small wonder that Borderline Films – the independent production company founded by Campos and Durkin with fellow filmmaker Josh Mond – has called on Corbet so frequently. (In addition to “Simon Killer” and “Martha Marcy,” the actor was a major presence in Durkin’s name-making short “Mary Last Seen.”) Speaking together over the phone from New York, Corbet and Campos come across as such fully welded creative partners that it’s sometimes hard to separate their words in the interview transcript. With its near-surgical construction, it’s clear “Simon Killer” benefited from this unity of vision.
“The film is essentially about the thirst of a killer, but my interest in approaching the film was never to focus on the violence,” says Campos. “It was more to focus on sex and the way that the characters emerge through the sex. But it’s clear there’s always been inclinations toward violence and his character carries them. I think that”s in large part to do with Brady”s brilliant performance, which is sort of always keeping that under the surface. And that energy is felt throughout the movie. A lot of people actually get upset that the film has the word ‘killer’ in it and there”s not more killing in the movie! We knew who this character was going in – but were more interested in the psychology: trying to understand how he could be capable of such violence.”
For Corbet, meanwhile, the direction of the camera’s gaze more toward Simon’s sexual impulses was crucial to unpacking that psychology: “In making the movie, we were addressing themes of misogyny. We weren’t interested in making a movie where we saw a great deal of violence against women. It was something we tried to be pretty consistent about. We never wanted to force people to look at something that ugly for very, very long. It would”ve run the risk of being quite exploitative.”
Looking, however, is a key preoccupation of “Simon Killer,” which steers and sometimes intentionally interrupts our understanding of the character with what Campos does and doesn’t allow us to see. Not for nothing are we repeatedly told that Simon’s specific field of study at university was the relationship between the eye and the brain. It’s a recurring fascination as he winds up romancing two women with optical defects, one of them a myopic prostitute played by excellent French actress Mati Diop (who also takes a story credit on the film).
Corbet describes the ongoing optical motif as “a potential key to unlocking the film’s various mysteries.” He continues: “It really tickled my brain that Antonio had been reading various theses on the subject of the peripheral vision. It seemed rife with potential of metaphor, and all fables have strong metaphors. So then the whole movie became about seeing. Especially with the narrative so elusive at times, we liked the idea of having such a simple metaphor at the heart of the film.”
Campos’s framing and shot construction also toys with the notion of peripheral vision, or lack thereof – many scenes find the camera placed at waist level, denying the audience a complete view of the characters or leaving us to interpret certain slices of body language. “That was partially organic and sort of where my brain has gone,” Campos says of the film’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.
“I”m moved by, or motivated by, the character that we”re observing – and I also want to give the camera character itself. The reason I feel comfortable doing what I do is because I have a good understanding of a frame and what composition is traditionally and what people are comfortable with – I know what that shot should look like if done in the classic way. But what I want to see is different: there”s always something more you can achieve through composition that says more about the character and more about the story that you”re telling.”
Though many critics have drawn thematic lines between “Simon Killer” and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels – or even Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” – Campos’s chief literary inspiration was prolific Belgian Georges Simenon. Best known for his melancholy Maigret detective series, but also the author of numerous penetrating psychological novels that slid calmly into the skin of loners and the lonely, he might well have endorsed “Simon Killer”’s measured balance of cruelty and compassion as it plunges into the void.
“That there was something about the central male figures of his books that was fascinating to me,” he says. “All these mysterious men, these men making strange decisions, fascinated by these other worlds that they’re sort of visiting but aren”t brave enough to enter or live in. They seemed so mundane and normal but there was something in the surface that was boiling, that then came out in such a sudden and aggressive way.”
Campos is happy to admit that he finds more inspiration in literature than in other films when it comes to conceiving his own work, and Simenon has long been a reference point: his novel “The Stranger” played a significant role in the development of “Afterschool.” He continues, “There’s an elliptical quality to everything he writes that I really love. His writing is so simple and exocentral, and that exocentralism is a school of thought that I”ve always responded to more than anything else.”
A further source of French perspective came to the project came from young actress Mati Diop — best known for her role in Claire Denis”s “35 Shots of Rum,” but also acclaimed shorts director in her own right — when Campos and Corbet decided the project required a female voice too.
“At a certain point we”d have just settled for a decent actress, we were having such a hard time finding someone,” says Corbet. “And then we met Mati just a few days before principal photography was due to start, and we ended up with not only a beautiful and talented actress but a fiercely intelligent filmmaker to collaborate with. I mean, all of the actors on the film contributed to the screenplay, if you will, but Mati had a special relationship to the film as a whole. She took this trip with us. She”s honestly the best actress I”ve ever worked with.”
Corbet and Campos”s collaboration, meanwhile, was a long time coming; the pair had discussed making a film together for a few years, and initially devised the premise for “Simon Killer” based on their mutual experience of having lived in Paris. “We basically started talking about our experiences as young foreigners in France,” says Corbet. “We started talking about his relationship to various hard-boiled genres, and ways to subvert genre expectations. And this is something that has all of the genre conceits that we can deconstruct into the type of story that was ultimately a little more true to us.”